The Turn of the Screw – Almeida Theatre, London
Hammer, the world renowned company behind the horror films have made their first step into theatre production with one of my favourite stories ever written: ‘The Turn of the Screw.’
Adapted by Rebecca Lenkiewicz from Henry James’ 19th century novella it sees new governess (Anna Madeley) arriving at a remote old house to look after two orphaned children, Flora and Miles.
The first half draws on all the theatrical devices it can to make an unforgettably chilling experience.
Thunder and lightning is always going to have me jumping out of my seat, and with the added delight of ghostly figures and unpredictable lighting it is definitely nerve jangling at times. But don’t be fooled, beneath the surface there is more to this thriller than things going bump in the night.
This production is extraordinarily engaging and undoubtedly a frightening and captivating experience.
‘The Turn of the Screw’ is a tale gloriously famed for its ambiguity: a governess, alone in a huge house with two strange children, plagued by ghosts and beginning to sense evil in the children, but ultimately the reader is never given any solutions.
One never ceases to marvel at Henry’s genius in creating a never ending debate about whether the notoriously unreliable narrator’s charges are in fact possessed by ghosts, or if she has fabricated the whole thing from her own repressed imagination.
There is a mystery from the start as to the manner of death of the children’s previous governess, Miss Jessel (Caroline Bartleet) and the identity of the man who appears on the tower.
In the past there have been many adaptations, influenced by varying themes, but in Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s new version, sex most definitely comes to the fore. In this production a more explicit working-out of the problem has been elected along with a more definite ending than James’ version. This decision is a surprisingly smart one, giving the audience more definite points for engagement, and maintaining pace and rhythm. The overtly sexual undertones still throw up questions. Is the governess in love with her older charge?
Does introducing the idea of sex to children at such a young age have a damaging effect on them as they develop or does the prudish behaviour of their Governess ultimately cause more harm?
This is Victorian gothic mixed with something else, implying sexual abuse and a level of perversion and while it is spot on with regards to the thrills the plot doesn’t always flow. Some scenes are just a bit too short leaving you to wonder, if you did not already know the story, what they have left out, although they do make fantastic use of the revolving stage.
The cast, directed by Lindsay Posner, are extremely strong, headed by the beautiful buttoned-up Anna Madeley, teetering on the edge of madness.
She is joined by the warm yet naïve housekeeper Mrs Grose (Gemma Jones) who gradually becomes a more shadowy figure, deliberately ignoring the truth as the children under her care begin to unravel.
Isabella Blake Thomas, who plays Flora, (there are three young actresses alternating the part) is absolutely marvellous as the disturbed little girl, along with her brother Miles (Laurence Belcher) they create a claustrophobic and deeply sinister environment. Belcher does a brilliant job of playing the haunted boy, although I can’t help but feel that at seventeen he is slightly too old for the role. Perhaps the insinuation of an inappropriate relationship would be been even more horrifying with a younger boy. Orlando Wells also makes an early and very brief appearance as the children’s somewhat neglectful, and dimissive Uncle. A role that seems rather disappointing for an actor who I have enoyed in several screen roles.
Most controversially, Lenkiewicz explicitly illustrates the worst thing that Quint (Eoin Geoghegan) could have done to Miles.
Pleasingly the ghosts, like in the book, are portrayed as solid creatures who appear in broad daylight and make eye contact with the current inhabitants. Peter McKintosh’s set is magnificent, a beautiful crumbling piece, with peeling paintwork, and a window which leers out menacingly at the audience, although much more reminiscent of Daphne du Maurier’s Manderley than that of a manor house lived in by children. The lighting also adds to the terror, casting teasing shadows and there is a sunset of such beauty that it feels real.
Much praise should finally be awarded to Scott Penrose the illusionist who brings to life the ghosts, simultaneously delighting and terrifying the audience.